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Stolen passports introduce a terrorism link

MalaysiaPlanecrash01eThe use of stolen passports by two passengers to board a Malaysian airliner that vanished over the South China Sea raises concerns that terrorists may have caused the jet’s apparent crash, say former U.S. security officials who specialize in transportation safety.

Use of stolen passports is a tactic of terrorists trying to avoid detection, while groups including al-Qaeda have sought to crash airplanes into oceans to cover up evidence, according to the experts. Oil slicks discovered yesterday in the Gulf of Thailand by Vietnam’s military suggested the Boeing Co. (BA) 777-200 jetliner may have crashed there.

No evidence exists of terrorism at this point, said a U.S. official following the case who asked not to be identified because the investigation is in its early stages. Yet as the probe continues, investigators are likely to consider the two passengers “instant suspects” and will try to establish their real identities, said John Magaw, a former administrator of the Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“That raised huge red flags — the stolen passports and the plane crashing over water,” said Magaw, who also was director of the U.S. Secret Service and now serves as a security consultant. “Those two things right there are highly, highly, highly suspicious.”

The timing of a possible explosion over water “would indicate they were trying to destroy as much evidence as possible and to make it that much harder to trace,” he said.

The Malaysian Airline System Bhd. (MAS) plane, en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur, was carrying 239 people, including 153 Chinese passengers and three U.S. citizens, according to the airline and U.S. State Department.

Kip Hawley, a former administrator of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, said the stolen-passport report and the prospect the plane crashed into the Gulf of Thailand “makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.”

“It sounds like a lot of other plots,” he said, referring to one in 2006 involving terrorists who wanted to down jetliners in the Atlantic Ocean by using liquid explosives. That plan was foiled by U.S. and British officials.

Hawley said that based on his experience, U.S. authorities will be looking for evidence that, if an onboard bomb brought down the Malaysian jet, it may have been a test run for a larger attack on multiple planes, as envisioned by various terrorist groups.

The governments of Italy and Austria confirmed that two passports used to board the flight were previously reported stolen by citizens of their countries. After investigators determine the identity of those who used the passports, they will check to see if they were on watch lists of suspected terrorists, Magaw said.

Hawley, a consultant and author of “Permanent Emergency,” a book about his time at the TSA, said he has been especially concerned about bombs hidden in the shoes of passengers because they are powerful enough to bring down aircraft and security officials have grown lax about checking footwear.

U.S. security officials last month cautioned airlines about a credible threat posed by shoe bombs.

Hawley said he expects that U.S. authorities, working with counterparts in China and Malaysia, will be particularly interested in how the Malaysian checkpoints worked and whether they properly scanned shoes for explosives.

He said U.S. authorities will also be checking satellite images to see if they detected an explosion on the plane.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. National Security Council, Caitlin Hayden, said in a statement yesterday that “the United States Government is in communication across agencies and with international officials to provide any appropriate assistance in the investigation.”

She also said U.S. officials “believe it is too early to comment on the causes” of the plane’s disappearance. Her comments were followed by an announcement by the National Transportation Safety Board that it was sending a team of U.S. aviation-accident investigators to assist in the probe of Flight 370, joined by experts from the Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing.

Magaw and Hawley stressed that the jet’s apparent crash could have been caused by other problems, ranging from pilot error to a failure of the airliner’s systems.

Nations hunting for the plane had little to go on, with no distress calls, emergency-beacon signals, bad weather or other signs why an airliner would lose touch in one of the safest phases of flight.

Malaysia has been vulnerable to terrorist activity and has been used as a transit and planning hub for terrorists, according to a 2012 report by the U.S. State Department. Still, the department said the country hasn’t suffered a serious terrorism incident for “several years.”

The country doesn’t require an entry visa for citizens of most countries on short-term visits, although it introduced a biometrics system in 2011 to record the fingerprints of travelers at its ports of entry, according to the State Department.-Bloomberg